If you spend any time gardening you have likely heard the term “native plant”, a buzzword in gardening circles. Finding a single clear-cut definition for native plant is difficult. Therefore, I made my own derived from various sources. According to me, a native plant grows in a particular area or ecosystem without human intervention and grew there before Europeans settled the area.
With this tentative definition, we need to decide why natives are important to our ecosystem.
First, native plants co-evolved with native insects and wildlife resulting in mutual dependence upon one another. This means our native plants are easily utilized sources of pollen and nectar for native insects. Because of this, native plants are fundamental to a healthy ecosystem. If a native plant community is thriving there is a smaller likelihood that native insects and other wildlife will be lost to an ecosystem. To see that native plants are an excellent source of pollen and nectar just observe the abundance of butterflies and bees on asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) and coneflowers (Echinacea spp.).
Doug Tallamy, University of Delaware, has stated that native plants can support three times more species of butterflies and moths as non-natives. Tallamy cites examples of native plants supporting native butterflies and bees as opposed to the inability of non-native species to do so. He further states native trees support 14 times more species of butterflies and moths as do introduced species. Loss of our natives can pose a problem for birds who depend upon insects to supply protein for their hatchlings.
A tragedy of non-native introductions is their tendency to become invasive. Asian kudzu covers up to 150,000 acres per year in the United States. It has been referred to as “the vine that ate the South”.
Natives tend to have small fertilizer and insecticide requirements, reducing an environmental threat. We know that fertilizers often pollute our waterways resulting in water that supports algal bloom. Insecticides are responsible for adversely affecting many beneficial insects, birds, and fish. They also have unintended negative consequences on human health. It is true that these products have had a positive effect upon crop production, but undeniable that a reduction in their use when possible would benefit our environment.
Natives provide food and shelter for wildlife, enhancing our area’s biological diversity. The end result is that fewer of our insects, birds and other wildlife face the prospect of extinction.
Many natives are well suited to our gardens. Currently, in my garden I have aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium), frostweed (Verbesina virginica), a few black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), and Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus arboreus). These plants are thriving and attract many butterflies and bees that I never see on many non-natives. Native plants are available for each season and the various habitats in your garden. They are a welcome addition to my garden.
By no means does your entire landscape have to be composed of natives. Start small. Only a few plants can make a difference. Natives can be found in local nurseries but must be searched out. Ask for them at the nursery. Master Gardeners host two plant sales each year. This year the fall plant sale will be October 28, 2017 at the Ruston Farmers’ Market. There is also a spring plant sale. Native plants will be available both times particularly in the spring. Please consider planting these very rewarding plants.